by Jeff Gburek (May 2002)Charalambides is a duo based in Austin, Texas consisting of Tom Carter on guitar, lap steel guitar and Christina Carter on vocal, guitar and organ. They occasionally work as a trio as has been reflected on number of releases on Siltbreeze (notably, Market Square, a rare double LP) and their part in the Harmony of the Spheres compilation on Drunken Fish (a track called "Naked in Our Deathskins," referenced below) in addition to various releases on their own label called Wholly Other. They have made a shared LP with Six Organs of Admittance and they may plan to do another. There is something always a bit unsettling and surprising about what happens in the course of a listening to one of their recordings. I have heard it said that they are part of some new worldwide Texas-based neo-psychedelic movement. What has attracted me often is the fact that the music is both disturbing and mysterious and reports are that they compose through improvisation. The new record coming out on the Arizona-based Eclipse label, Increase, is not quite as disturbing as it is mysterious. And the following is an account of my thinking during my third listening to Increase.
I have been trying to understand sound in terms of an allegory. This goes against the grain of modernity while also, in my sense of this undertaking, it goes unbeholden to medievalism and, I hope, dunks me into the burning core of a primeval magma. This erupting and emptying substance is also what is with us always, as a life force. Can the sounds we hear take part in this universal life force? Hard physics says no to the "universal" and "life." Well, how short is that? But my ear wants to span that wreckage hopefully. And I am thinking of life = existence as a paradigm more akin as I am to stone. Is there stone in the tone that peals from a chord organ? As it becomes an eerie unity and in its stasis an unblinking, mute presence prone to continual dips of disappearance. A drone that sinks like a stone beneath the waters of sound, that becomes most full when imperceptible, most empty.
That's what track one begins with, and slowly a note diverges from it, veering off like an asymptote; a melodic figure breaks away, aggregates, still humming with the electronic pulse that, if its battery were to die, would lead immediately back to the stone unity of a reed, also breathed out by an electric motor. The e-bow guitar travels a smooth space, inter-tonally. Because a note never appears to be struck, the music presents the placidity of a humming electronic field that weaves through the sonic field. So this music goes onward, almost as if it had never begun. An alap in classical Indian music is never like this. There is no pumping of the harmonium, no plucking of the tamboura. That no note seems to be struck makes it something other than that (its introduction understated) while the secondary accomplishment of the various voicings establishes the music of India as only a distant reference, a too easy sliding of meanings offers. There are moments of quasi-struck sound: with the introduction of a pedal steel guitar- but it also is not itself a primary sound but instead becomes one through a spacious electronic echo (I guess I might be fooled and discover it was recorded in a cathedral or cave-except that the echo conspicuously drops out at points, like someone pulled the cave off of certain sounds). So the steel's striking-ness is also glossed, the sound remains smooth, the shift of tone in no way jarring.
It seems important to me to say all this because of how unity is achieved is central to the experience of a musical process. These sounds integrate themselves through an electronic matrix the way light is organized in a hologram. These sounds are spectral, in all senses of that word. They illuminate no background however faintly perceptible. The sounds do not link to any sounds beyond themselves and in this sense, they are original and other. It recalls nothing within itself. Except that resultant of energies that Charalambides had become on some occasion. But that is beyond what I am trying to say.
Central to a medieval concept of an allegory would be a movement from perdition to salvation. Classically, from chaos to ultimate order or some such narrative culminating dreams are made of. That's not what happens in this music, although there are moments of smooth-space atonality, a split away from unison and/or harmonic consonance into divergence/dissonance such as that explored by Giacinto Scelsi. Instrumentaion on Increase cannot create the sense of bifurcating low-end spaces, gaps and voids as in Scelsi. Nor does it to my ear try to do so. It is interesting to note that Rudolf Steiner maintained that it was perception of overtones in a single oscillation that leads monody into polyphony (as if it were already there hidden) and that Scelsi's obsession was with overtones, initially, of struck tones on piano, reverberating in the echoic chamber of the instrument itself.
The above goes toward pointing out that there is a harsher, more teeth-grating way of experiencing the dynamics of tonal divergence moving into unity and back out. That is not the way of Increase. The few senses of drop-out and voidness you may experience- perhaps best exemplified when a sound disappears and in its place is the short-circuit hum of a guitar, the carrier of the sound- come within a setting that feels domestic (i.e. you don't feel like you're inside a nuclear reactor). This, I would add, for the sake of contrast to those familiar with earlier work by Charalambides, differs immensely from the slow rending of spaces achieved in the later moments of "Naked in our Deathskins."
One of my favorite moments in Increase comes with an extended e-bow note over a squashed handful of low-register chord organ and high-pitched vocal quavering microtonally, without any echo, around the e-bowed tone. Then that perennially tempting play of fifths sounding like a European siren comes in to fade in a long descending tone into the oblivion of the echo chamber. Gone. It brought me inexplicably back to being 6 years old seeing the premier of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Who knows why (but believe me, that's a helluva different experience than having seen it on video last week and then being reminded of it). The first pluckings come to me as fuzzy guitar plucking but plucking nevertheless and my CD ends with an ascending guitar figure as the music fades out.
Overall, the music seems to move more laterally than vertically, if that makes any sense. Its unity is not come to by way of reaching a summit. It doesn't so much absorb you as look out at you. It is electronically viscous with moments of lucidity you can see through into great distances. It reminds me of what I love about the long views you get here on the mesa in northern New Mexico.
c/o Wholly Other
Austin, TX 78767-1481
Increase is a double LP forthcoming on Eclipse Records-- www.eclipse-records.com
Charalambides will be touring the Eastern Seaboard and Midwest in May 2002, joined by Heather Murray on steel guitar and vocals.
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